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Table-games bill would fund pet causes

Libraries in Pittsburgh. A lower Bucks County hospital. A new medical school in Scranton. A community college in Erie - if it ever gets built.

A poker game at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. A bill to legalize table games in Pa. would bring revenue to the state. Critics warn that "pet" projects would also benefit. (Bonnie Weller/Staff/File)
A poker game at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. A bill to legalize table games in Pa. would bring revenue to the state. Critics warn that "pet" projects would also benefit. (Bonnie Weller/Staff/File)Read more

Libraries in Pittsburgh. A lower Bucks County hospital. A new medical school in Scranton. A community college in Erie - if it ever gets built.

Those pet projects and others stand to hit the jackpot if table games are legalized at Pennsylvania casinos.

Each would get a slice of poker, blackjack, and roulette revenue through legislation divvying up what is known as the "local share."

On close inspection, the 235-page table-games bill doesn't just add new games to Pennsylvania casinos and new revenue to state coffers. It parcels out the local share in ways that remind critics of an old Harrisburg favorite: walking-around money.

That was the nickname for discretionary grants that legislators steered to projects back home. The long-derided grants were all but banished from the latest recession-ravaged budget. But Eric Epstein sees them coming back with a vengeance in the table-games bill.

"These are WAMs in perpetuity," says Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of "The legislature is directing millions to select entities and there was no open or transparent process. . . . These may be worthwhile projects, but a lot of worthwhile projects won't get funded."

The House and Senate adjourned last week without reaching an agreement on the table-games bill. Both chambers expect to take it up again when they resume work Jan. 5. Gov. Rendell says the bill - with its promise of $250 million in revenue - must be on his desk by Jan. 8 or he'll lay off more state employees.

The bill would impose an initial 16 percent tax rate on table games, with 14 going to the state and 1 percent each to programs in the "host" counties and municipalities where casinos are situated.

Depending on the casino, that 1 percent is expected to be worth about $1 million annually once all the games are running.

Deciphering Senate Bill 711 to determine who would get what is a perplexing task and requires the aid of a legislative linguist.

Consider, for example, page 135 of the bill:

The local share from the "Category 1 licensed facility that is located at a thoroughbred racetrack" is to be directed to a nonprofit hospital in a "county of the second class A . . . in a first-class township that is contiguous to the municipality in which" the casino is located.

Translation: A slice of the proceeds from table games at PhiladelphiaPark would be sent annually to Lower Bucks Hospital, a Bristol Township community hospital that opened in 1954.

The bill is written that way because the state constitution bars so-called special legislation that identifies such entities by name, said Steve MacNett, chief counsel for Senate Republicans.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) sees it differently.

He unsuccessfully argued on the House floor last week that the table-games bill was unconstitutional. His reasoning: Though not naming names, the bill unmistakably directs revenue to specific entities, such as Lower Bucks Hospital.

"The public is getting a little tired of that sleight-of-hand," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a self-styled watchdog group.

To Lower Bucks Hospital, which has struggled financially in recent years, the money can't come quick enough.

In past years, the hospital counted on state grants to offset uncompensated care it provides. That money fell victim to cuts in the state budget even as the hospital was giving away $11 million in care last year, hospital spokesman John Coffman said.

"We are very excited to be receiving any potential state money," he said.

The hospital has State Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks) to thank.

Tomlinson drafted the provision recently, and until last week he served on the hospital's board of directors.

He called the choice of Lower Bucks "the best use of the money" because the hospital serves the communities near the casino and is in troubled financial straits.

"They have been struggling for some time," he said last week in an interview. "This was almost screaming out, 'We need help.' "

He estimated the hospital would receive at least $750,000 a year from table games if the bill becomes law.

Tomlinson had served on the hospital's board for five years before he resigned Tuesday. He said he had planned to step down for some time but did so last week in order to avoid "any appearance of a conflict."

A new internal rule under consideration in the Senate would prohibit members from creating nonprofits or serving on their boards if the agencies receive state funding.

Tomlinson defended the practice of lawmakers' directing the table-games windfalls.

They know their home communities and who needs the money most, he said, "not the governor, not bureaucrats, but elected officials who live in the communities."

Cutler, for one, believes the local projects inserted in the bill are more like what he called "sweeteners" designed to attract votes and assure passage of a controversial measure.

"It's one more example of what's wrong with the process, in that things are bartered and traded in exchange for policy that can't stand on its own merit," Cutler said. "Hospitals are great ventures, but there are lots of them. Why should we pick one?"

Although some details of the bill remain in flux, most of the local-share sections are expected to remain intact, with one possible exception. It's still unclear how local money from the two casinos planned for Philadelphia would be allocated.

The House version calls for the city and school district to split the share, but the Senate's wording would direct the money to nonprofit organizations that deal with everything from health care to crime prevention.

Various local-share sections have been added to the table-games proposal in recent months as it ping-ponged back and forth between the House and Senate.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) proposed taking a piece of the Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack local share and diverting it to the city of Chester for what amounts to scholarships. The city would use the money to cover its "sponsorship fees" at Delaware County Community College in order to reduce tuition rates for students from Chester.

In the Poconos, a slice of the local share from the Mount Airy Casino Resort would go to the state's newest medical school, the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton.

That provision comes courtesy of Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) who inserted the language in the bill.

"He determined it has obvious regional benefits and fulfills needs," said Lisa Scullin, Mellow's spokeswoman.

The college opened in August with an inaugural class of 65 students.

The vice chairman of the school's 10-member board of trustees is a name familiar to anyone who has followed Pennsylvania's bumpy ride into legalized gambling: Louis DeNaples, Mount Airy's former owner.

DeNaples was charged last year with lying to state investigators about his connections to criminals when he applied for a coveted slots license. Prosecutors dropped the charges in April in a deal that had DeNaples turn over his stake in the casino to his family.

Scullin said the fact that DeNaples is a trustee of the new medical college played no part in Mellow's decision to seek a local share for the school.

"Sen. Mellow would have pushed for this whether [DeNaples] was on the board or not," she said.

In the meantime, in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania, proceeds from table games at the Presque Isle Downs & Casino would go to Erie County Community College.

If it is ever built.

Under the legislation, the project - long the subject of vocal debate in Erie - would have four years to break ground. If the school doesn't get launched in time, its share of the table-games take would go to local economic-development efforts.

It's all right there in Senate Bill 711.

To read the latest version of Senate Bill 711 online, go to EndText